Ray Bradbury,
The Illustrated Man
(Avon, 1951; Bantam, 2001)

The Illustrated Man was published more than half a century ago and helped cement Ray Bradbury's reputation as one of the most original voices in science fiction. I first read this book at the tail end of the 1970s, in my early 20s, and it helped lay the foundation for my love of the genre. I decided recently to share the book with my 10-year-old daughter and it was a strangely mixed experience, returning to Bradbury's tattooed carnival of rocketships, time travel and nuclear war.

The Illustrated Man is typical Bradbury in that, while he loves his rocketships, he's far less nuts -- and bolts -- about them than most science fiction writers. This allows some of his stories to feel less technologically dated 50 years out. Instead it's other details and the mood of the stories that feel oddly archaic here. So many people smoking, so few women serving as anything more than window dressing, so many people living under a shadow of oppressive fear.

As my daughter and I read through The Illustrated Man I was struck by the repetitiveness of the stories. In fact, only a few of the 18 tales stood out as the sort of distinct, timeless classics I recalled from my first encounter. "The Fox and the Forest," which deals with a couple attempting to escape the rigidity of their 22nd-century lives by hiding in history, was easily the standout story for both my daughter and me. "Marionettes, Inc." holds up very well as a darkly charming robot story. "The Veldt" and "Zero Hour" and a couple of other stories also continue to have a fairly strong impact. But whenever The Illustrated Man blasted into space, every time he touched down on Mars or Venus, the past half century of history crashed down devastatingly upon the experience. It's difficult to accept Bradbury's romantic view of Mars in particular here in the post Mariner/Viking/Pathfinder 21st century.

What did impress me in this rereading of The Illustrated Man was Bradbury's lyrical sense, his need to have the rhythm of the story, the texture of the words, play such a large role in his tales. In a genre where a rigorous attention to scientific detail is so frequently the basis of short stories, Bradbury proves that there's room for poetry among the pistons. But The Illustrated Man also proves the point that science fiction isn't really about the future. This is a book lodged firmly in the middle of the last century and, as I discovered, the dawn of the 1950s isn't a particularly comprehensible time to a kid born in the 1990s.

[ by Gregg Thurlbeck ]
Rambles: 24 August 2002

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